Johannesburg — That sound you're hearing is millions of people sighing. We're on the downhill run to Mangaung with no promise it will pull us out of the doldrums. Strikes are worsening, the army has been called to maintain law and order, South Africa's credit was downgraded and more could be coming. And now Zimbabwe thinks we are a threat to the region's security.
The sight of two wise old men, Judge Ian Farlam and Advocate George Bizos, addressing each other at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry creates an uneasy feeling. Both of them are long past retirement age and should be enjoying their golden years. They should not be poring over mounds of legal documents and gory post mortem reports. But that is exactly what they will be doing for the next few months as the inquiry into the events leading to and following the Marikana massacre unfolds.
There is no "good" outcome for the Marikana Commission of Inquiry. It is probing the murders of 45 people who suffered undignified and gruesome deaths and those liable will have to be identified and bear the consequences. Whichever way it pans out, whether the company Lonmin, the police, the trade unions, the workers or government is found to have blood on their hands, it will still be a terrible blight on post-Apartheid South Africa.
The killings signalled a dark period, reminiscent of Apartheid's brutality and contempt for human life. The commission will unearth the reasons and circumstances which caused such unprecedented violence in our democracy and as a country we may not be fully prepared to confront these truths. They will be harsh and horrify us.
As the commission manoeuvres through a legal minefield, a phalanx of the country's top lawyers will be pulling in different directions, attempting at all costs to protect their clients and put the blame on others. It may be a test of legal prowess, but is bound to be unpleasant. And not since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will we have such emotional, public accounts by victims and their families of detention and killings by the police.
It will all be testing in every respect.
Parallel to the Marikana Commission of Inquiry, the nominations process and preparatory meetings towards the ANC National Conference in Mangaung in mid-December will unfold. If the process so far during the prohibited campaigning period has been a messy scrap, expect factional wars to grow in intensity in the next two-and-a-half months.
Unlike other elections, ANC candidates are not allowed to campaign directly for themselves. But their factions, camp leaders and minions do their bidding. And so party members - and the rest of South Africa - do not get to hear what their potential leaders have to offer, as candidates do not lay out their vision for the organisation or the country beforehand. They have to guess these based on what the respective camps claim and on the "credentials" the leaders are already known for.
Only after the ANC president is elected will his or her leadership style become apparent - starting with the traditional "January 8" statement which lays out the party's game plan for the year. Even then, this annual statement is delivered on behalf of the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC), and is not really a reflection of the president's personal vision. It is only when this person becomes head of state that their leadership qualities become evident - and if they turn out to be incapable or weak, it is way too late to do anything.
While the downside of this system is blatantly obvious, the party insists on maintaining its pre-liberation method of selecting leaders and gambling with the country's future. The Gauteng ANC had long ago proposed that the party should conduct an evaluation of its current leadership and use this as a basis to select capable leaders in Mangaung.
However, with many ANC structures already having made up their minds about their choice for the top six leadership positions, and the race likely to be decided through the provincial delegate numbers, any attempt to evaluate the candidates now would serve little purpose.
So whether South Africa is either getting more of the same or a new leader whose vision and game plan is yet unknown, it has to accept whoever the ANC thrusts on it. While ordinary South Africans can do little about this situation, the rest of the world is not as tolerant of the country's leadership dearth.
International ratings agency Moody's last week downgraded the government bond rating by one notch, to Baa1 from A3, due to doubts that the state is able to address the country's socio-economic crisis and "policy uncertainty" ahead of the ANC's national conference.
"The revision reflects Moody's view of the South African authorities' reduced capacity to handle the current political and economic situation and to implement effective strategies that could place the economy on a path to faster and more inclusive growth," the ratings agency said.
On Monday, Bank of America Merrill Lynch warned that South Africa is at risk of a further credit rating downgrade by all three of the top global rating agencies - Moody's, Standard & Poor's and Fitch.
"South Africa is clearly at risk of a further downgrade by at least one of the rating agencies, and possibly all three. The potential triggers are a faster than expected slowdown in economic growth that negatively impacts public finances, and/or unfavourable political developments," Bank of America Merrill Lynch said in a statement.
Adding to the economic stress are continuing strikes in the mining and transport sectors. Reuters estimated 75,000 miners were on strike across South Africa's gold and platinum sectors, about 15% of the underground labour force. Virtually all of the strikes are illegal, and the wildcat strikes could lead to job losses and mining companies cutting their operations in the country.
Then the transport workers strike is severely affecting the movement and supply of goods around the country, with fuel supply and the availability of cash at ATMs causing anxiety for consumers. The strike has been marked by violence and damage to property, and efforts to end it have so far been fruitless.
The decision by President Jacob Zuma to deploy the SA National Defence Force within the country's borders until the end of January has exacerbated the feeling of being under siege. The army was deployed to support the police in maintaining stability at Marikana, as well as in the country over the festive season.
There has not been much explanation as to why these extraordinary measures were necessary, other than presidency spokesman Mac Maharaj saying: "The deployment is not a blanket order, but depends on the operational needs of the police The president considered the authorisation in a holistic context."
With South Africans already feeling jittery about all these developments, Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) henchman Jonathan Moyo has stepped up to point out the irony of Zuma trying to mediate Zimbabwe's crisis when there is a "security crisis" unfolding in his own country. He said the Southern African Development Community could no longer turn a blind eye to South Africa, as it had become a threat to the security of the region.
Writing in the state-run Sunday Mail newspaper, Moyo said: "If the truth was to be told without fear or favour, the unfolding political, economic and security crisis in South Africa epitomised by the naked brutality of the Marikana massacre and the subsequent nationwide deployment of the army in the place of civilian functionaries poses a clear and present threat with far-reaching regional security implications that can only be ignored by the clueless among us who find comfort in burying their heads in the sand while hoping for the best outcome after the dust has settled."
Moyo said due to South Africa's domestic problems and their regional implications, Zuma could not continue in his role as SADC facilitator for Zimbabwe since he was mediating over issues that were "arguably worse in his own country".
Moyo and his president, Robert Mugabe, are clearly delighted that after years of trying to play Big Brother to Zimbabwe during its political and economic meltdown, South Africa is now facing its own crisis. Since relations between South Africa and Zimbabwe deteriorated during the Zuma presidency, the ruling Zanu-PF is obviously thrilled to finally have an opportunity to embarrass the South African government.
But while many South Africans might be feeling despondent about the situation in the country, our president is rather upbeat. Speaking at the ANC headquarters in Johannesburg on Monday, Zuma said the ruling party would surprise many prophets of doom.
"The ANC is under attack everyday, being painted black and as a failure.
When it goes to its own conferences there are so many who become ANC, who know it inside out, analyse it and its leaders. In Mangaung, where we are going, this organisation will surprise many, as always," Zuma said.
With no feel-good events or major sporting tournaments to pump up national pride, Zuma's promise is all there is to keep us off the anti-depressants. We hope it's working for you.